Media Comment: Freedom of the press – who really cares?

The “democracy in danger” slogan figures prominently in “Beinartism,” the theory that Israel's policies threaten its democracy.

Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370 (photo credit: J Street)
Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370
(photo credit: J Street)
This past year, a major public campaign was launched by the media in tandem with the liberal, progressive ideological camp in Israel on the theme that Israel is moving in an alarmingly anti-democratic direction.
One of the campaign’s central showpieces of the alleged crackdowns on the freedom of press was legislation that would increase the penalty for defamation. The defenders of our free press claimed that this would stifle dissent and investigative reporting. A second was a proposed law that would enable anyone, even residents of Judea and Samaria, to sue organizers of boycotts, provided of course that proof exists of economic injury. Free speech, so say our wise men, should protect calls for boycotts, even if they lead to real damage.
The “democracy in danger” slogan also figures prominently in “Beinartism.” Named after Peter Beinart, a journalist and former editor of America’s The New Republic, Beinartism is the theory that Israel’s current policies are a threat to the country’s democracy. They are, so it is argued, causing an irreparable split between the younger Jewish generation in the United States and the Jewish establishment leadership which uncritically supports Israel’s loss of democracy and indeed, morality.
As an act of public responsibility and in protest against the perceived dangerous media legislation initiatives, various NGOs published newspaper adverts. Using editorial considerations, a euphemism for certain elements of the media to exert control of what we read, watch and hear – and what we do not – representatives of these NGOs were interviewed to discuss these issues under the slogan “An end to the silencing.”
The same elements took advantage of friendships with the more liberal of their colleagues abroad to hammer away at claims, such as that of advocate Michael Sfard in The New York Review of Books this past March, that freedom of speech and other similar values “are currently being taken apart.” Sfard’s interviewer, Dimi Reider, suggested that there is a “decline of Israel’s independent press.” He reasoned that Israel’s administration of Judea and Samaria, which is, in his mind, an undemocratic system, “is now seeping back across the Green Line.”
Indeed, there has been recently a major threat to freedom of press and expression. Journalists have been imprisoned, censored, hounded and interrogated. Interference with Internet contacts and Facebook postings became habitual. All this, of course is occurring in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority and at the order of the PA’s president.
In an April press release (a virtual repeat of one which was issued exactly a year ago), Human Rights Watch demanded that “the Palestinian Authority... should not criminally prosecute Yusuf al-Shayeb, a journalist detained without charge... and released... being investigated for libeling PA officials whom he accused of spying and corruption. The PA should also release Palestinians detained without charge for criticizing the PA on their Facebook pages... harassing and arresting journalists.”
THIS IS seen by Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director, as “send[ing] a chilling message about exercising the right to free expression.”
Surprisingly, the Israeli colleagues of these Arab journalists and media people are strangely silent. No protests, no posters, no petitions. There were no ads published in the same places where just a few months large sums were paid for many column inches to protest the same “crimes” against their profession.
One would think that Israel’s journalists would at least exhibit a modicum of sympathy for what is going on under the iron thumb of Arab dictatorship. Putting solidarity aside, one might think that assuring the essentials of democracy in the Palestinian Authority is essential for anyone with a vision of peace between the PA and Israel. If there is no democracy in the proposed future state of “Palestine” and no free press is a sign of no democracy, how can we expect peace to flourish?
In a piece published at the Carter Center website back in August 2007, B’Tselem’s Jessica Montell wrote that “documenting abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is crucial... [and] also to affect situations on the ground to mitigate suffering,” adding that “groups like B’Tselem can influence the dynamics of the conflict.”
But what influence can there be if abuses of human rights and civil liberties, such as the muffling of a free press, are either ignored and receive inadequate attention especially from those groups who have proved to be quite vocal when Israel is perceived to be a culprit, rightly or wrongly?
B’Tselem, which seeks to “champion human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” does have a section devoted to “intra-Palestinian violations” but that seems limited to violent Fatah- Hamas rivalries. A check of the site this week revealed no reports on what even Human Rights Watch viewed as dangerous in their press release.
Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer wrote an op-ed in Ma’ariv asserting that “the Israeli occupation is illegal, undemocratic, immoral and antithetical to Zionism, regardless of the atrocities taking place in Homs, Tripoli or Tehran.”
On November 21 last year, Peace Now organized a protest in Tel Aviv against the libel law amendment. The demonstrators shouted “Bibi, you’ve gone too far – Israel is not Iran.”
Meretz’s MK Nitzan Horowitz addressed the crowd and called the controversial legislation “fascist” despite the declaration in the Knesset of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that as long as he was “prime minister, Israel will continue to be an exemplary and resilient democracy. No one will dictate what to think, what to write, what to investigate, and what to broadcast.”
By leaving Ramallah out of their protests, our self-anointed guardians of “essential rights” such as freedom of the press would appear to be quite one-sided in their campaigns. They seem to trust an Abbas or a Fayyad more than a Netanyahu. They are also strangely silent on the issue of anti- Semitic incitement in the Palestinian Authority media.
Freedom of the press is essential to the democratic system. However, those people who fear for democratic values only in the context of criticism of Israel’s government and Knesset, while ignoring the very dangerous misdeeds of the Palestinian Authority, lose credibility.
The strange silence of organizations such as B’Tselem, Peace Now, the Israel Democracy Institute and Israel’s Journalists Associations when true democratic values such as the freedom of the press are trampled in the PA, weakens their moral standing also within Israel. They resemble the boy who cried wolf too often. Should we take their criticism of Israeli society seriously, or should we suspect that their motivation has less to do with democracy and morality and is mostly politically motivated?
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.